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Is Making Playoffs Enough for Wild-Card Losers? Advancing Enough for Winners?

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Is Making Playoffs Enough for Wild-Card Losers? Advancing Enough for Winners?
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If I ran the Cincinnati Bengals, I'd probably fire Marvin Lewis after losing in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year, this time with a 27-10 home defeat to the San Diego Chargers.

When I mentioned that on Twitter, many Bengals fans—and more levelheaded football pundits—thought I was crazy. Lewis led Cincinnati on three consecutive trips to the playoffs from a division that routinely features Super Bowl champions…and the Browns.

Fire the guy? He should get a raise!

Or should he?

In today's NFL, is getting to the playoffs merely enough? Are we that hell-bent at celebrating parity that simply being in the top half of teams year after year warrants celebration and retention? 

The Bengals are one of just five teams in the NFL to make the playoffs each of the last three seasons. Three of the other four—New England, Green Bay and San Francisco—have made it to or won the previous three Super Bowls, while the fourth—Denver—won the AFC West three consecutive years, securing home-field advantage each of the last two. 

In a league that routinely sees more than 20 percent of its coaches lose their jobs every season, firing a coach who can lead a team to the playoffs year after year might, on its face, seem ridiculous. 

It would, however, depend on a team's expectations, wouldn't it? (Note: It should.)

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Lewis has been in charge in Cincinnati for 11 seasons, and the Bengals have gone to the playoffs five times, earning three division titles and winning 90 of the 176 games for which he has been head coach. And yet, in the playoffs, the Bengals are 0-5 under Lewis in 11 seasons—seasons in which their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, have combined for three Super Bowl victories in four trips.

Should Lewis be compared to his contemporaries, or to franchise history? 

In the previous 11 seasons before Lewis took over, Cincinnati had been to the playoffs exactly zero times, and the franchise record under Dick LeBeau, Bruce Coslet and David Shula was a combined 52-124. 

Under that comparison, Lewis probably deserves a lifetime contract and a raise. 

And yet, Lewis' team lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year and the fourth time in five seasons, with this one coming at home to a Chargers team that truly has no business even being in the playoffs. 

San Diego was gifted a Week 17 victory by the Kansas City Chiefs (more on them in a minute) and used that second life to outmuscle the Bengals and thwart quarterback Andy Dalton, who came up small in the playoffs, yet again. 

What did Lewis have to say about Dalton after the game? All the proverbial right things, it seems. Per Paul Dehner Jr. at Cincinnati.com, Lewis said:

I don’t have any questions about Andy’s role in this thing. We just have to keep working it. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything to help Andy all the time. He’s going to be very disappointed in himself today, obviously. He is the football team, and I’m sure he’s very disappointed.

The offense looked so bad on Sunday that people have openly started to question if Dalton should be replaced at quarterback, while summarily removing offensive coordinator Jay Gruden from any realistic consideration for a head coaching vacancy.

Like his head coach, Dalton has helped the Bengals get to the playoffs each of the last three years—his only three in the league, by the way—yet their collective inability to succeed in the postseason has reporters justifiably asking if a change is needed. 

For the Bengals, merely making the playoffs is not good enough. Not anymore. For other teams this year, maybe it was.

 

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Big Red Collapse

For the Kansas City Chiefs, making the playoffs in Andy Reid's first season was more than anyone could have expected. The Chiefs had talent on both sides of the ball coming back this season and the first pick in the NFL draft. Reid probably expected the team to rebound from a horrendous 2-14 season in 2012, but to start the year 9-0 and make the playoffs was surely enough for Chiefs fans to be excited about the future of the franchise. 

And then came the playoff collapse.

The Chiefs were beating the Indianapolis Colts by four touchdowns before an utterly epic collapse saw the Colts outscore Kansas City, 35-13, in the second half of Saturday's wild-card contest to eke out a 45-44 stunner.

“For the way that the game played out, I don’t think as players and coaches (we) feel that it was acceptable,” Reid said, per The Kansas City Star's Terez A. Paylor. “When you have a lead like that, you have to finish it and take care of business there.”

Sure, injuries played a huge part in the game, as many of the team's best players left the field battered, bruised and concussed throughout the contest, undoubtedly aiding the Colts in their comeback.

It's ironic, really. Almost karmic, if there is such a thing in the NFL.

Reid decided to rest his starters in Week 17 of the regular season in preparation for the playoffs to ensure they would be healthy, a decision that hugely impacted the landscape of the AFC playoffs. 

A victory by Kansas City would have put Pittsburgh in the postseason over San Diego. By resting his key players, Reid all but assured San Diego a win before his backups played so well that they almost beat the Chargers themselves. Alas, bad luck and poor officiating conspired to hand the game to San Diego anyway.

So, what happened just a week later? The Chiefs lost a playoff game they were all but assured to win—only one team in NFL history had come from farther behind to win a playoff game than the Colts did on Saturday—because too many players got hurt.

The loss was a microcosm of the entire season for Kansas City, looking like the best team in the league to start before completely unraveling down the stretch.

And those Chargers—the pesky division rival for which Reid ostensibly held the playoff door wide open in Week 17—won their playoff game and now get to face Denver with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line.

The Chiefs will be sitting at home watching two division rivals fight for a spot in the conference title game. If that's not football karma, I'm not sure what is.

“We shoot for Super Bowls,” Reid said, also per Paylor. “We’re not shooting to be a good football team, we’re shooting to be a great football team. (The 2014 season) can’t get here soon enough, honestly.”

Still (there was certainly going to be a "still"), the Chiefs had a great season when considering the expectations for the year. 

Kansas City surpassed last year's win total before the calendar turned to October, winning more games this season than any in the last 10 years. Given where the Chiefs were last season, the future looks incredibly bright under Reid. Making the playoffs, circumstances of the loss be damned, has to be good enough.

 

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Anti-Reid in Philly

Chip Kelly replaced Reid in Philadelphia and had a remarkable season in his NFL rookie campaign. Kelly changed an entire culture of football in Philadelphia in one year, from the way the Eagles practice to the tempo and style of the offense to the scheme on defense to, heck, even the way the coach interacts with the fans and media. 

Everything was different in Philly, and while many pundits around the NFL thought (read: hoped) Kelly's style wouldn't work in the pros, it has. It will. Kelly breathed life back into Philadelphia football this season, and there wasn't a chance a 26-24 loss in the Wild Card Round to the New Orleans Saints was going to change that.

Besides, Kelly already won a playoff game this year. The Week 17 victory in Dallas to give the Eagles the NFC East division title and put them in the playoffs over the hated Cowboys was enough for most Philly faithful.

Even after losing a home game against a New Orleans team that had never won a playoff game on the road, there wasn't a sweeping sense of melancholy like past playoff exits. There was, and is, hope.

Getting to the playoffs in a year people expected seven or eight wins was certainly good enough.

 

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Action Packed Season

If you would have told any Packers fan at the start of the season that Green Bay would finish 8-7-1 and squeak into the playoffs before losing a wild-card game at Lambeau Field to the San Francisco 49ers, that fan would have thrown a block of cheese at your head. 

Or whatever they do when it's 50 below in Wisconsin. 

(Wait, is it 50 below at the start of the season? I may have mixed my story up for a cheap "it's cold" joke on that one. Apologies.) 

Tell that same fan, however, that en route to the playoffs, the Packers would start Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn a combined seven games to throw a collective 280 passes this season, and, well, making the playoffs probably doesn't seem so bad after all.

In fact, while the Packers did get a home playoff contest in Aaron Rodgers' second start back from injury, Green Bay, like Philadelphia, ostensibly won a playoff game the week before in defeating the division rival Chicago Bears for the NFC North title.

Unlike Philly, the Packers had far more grandiose hopes for the 2013 season. Just making the playoffs surely would not have been enough in September. But in January, after the year they had, it's probably not so bad. 

 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Was Winning Enough for the AFC Winners?

The wild-card survivors in the AFC this weekend were Indianapolis and San Diego, who should both feel happy to still be alive.

Truthfully, if there was one team in the entire postseason tournament that needed at least one win the most, it was either the Colts or the Bengals. (Okay, it's probably the Broncos, but the Colts and Bengals were right there as well.) 

The Colts needed to win a playoff game this year to show the rest of the AFC they are a legitimate contender for the crown in the next few seasons. 

Indianapolis got its win—in historic fashion, to boot—so if that's as far as Andrew Luck can take his charges, the year will have been a great one in Indy.

This is not to suggest the Colts can't beat the Patriots in New England. They are strong enough to do exactly that, having beaten four playoff teams during the regular season before coming from behind to beat the Chiefs, again, in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. 

It could happen, unexpected as it may be. Though even if the season ends in Foxboro next weekend, the Colts must surely be happy with a division title and the first playoff victory since the last Super Bowl season. Andrew Luck is the real deal, and that should be good enough for everyone in Indy. 

It's certainly good enough in San Diego. Have you heard the term "playing with house money"? Well, the Chargers aren't just playing with house money this postseason; they're playing with a bucket full of winnings they got after finding a quarter on the ground and saying, "Eh, I really should use this for the parking meter, but I'll give this slot machine a try." 

House money? The Chargers hit the house jackpot. Winning in Denver would make Mike McCoy's first year one of the best playoff coaching debuts in NFL history. Getting one playoff win in his first year is surely enough to put smiles on everyone's faces for a long while.

 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The NFC's Unfinished Business

The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers have wildly divergent expectations from their AFC counterparts this year.

The Saints blew a chance at a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round by losing to the Carolina Panthers late in the regular season. While a No. 6 seed making the Super Bowl is unlikely, winning one game was paramount. The Saints would have been horribly disappointed had they lost in Philadelphia on Saturday night, cold weather notwithstanding. 

There is unfinished business for Drew Brees and New Orleans, back in the playoffs after a horrible 2012 marred by Bountygate suspensions.

The Saints had to feel like 2013 was their year, and with a trip up to Seattle looming, they get a chance to prove it. New Orleans was 9-2 and rolling along before finishing the season 2-3, including road defeats to Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina.

The Saints should not consider this a successful season unless they beat Seattle. Frankly, if the Panthers beat the 49ers and host New Orleans in the NFC title game, the Saints shouldn't think of this season as a success unless it ends in the Super Bowl. 

The same goes for the 49ers.

San Francisco is the defending NFC champion and should expect to make it back to the Super Bowl despite finishing second in the NFC West, thereby qualifying the Niners for the playoffs as the lowly No. 5 seed. 

The last time a Super Bowl loser made it back to the title game in the following year was 1993, when the Buffalo Bills completed an epic run of four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

The feat has only happened to five franchises in history. Before the Bills, the Denver Broncos made back-to-back Super Bowls after the 1986 and 1987 seasons, losing both. The Minnesota Vikings of 1973 and 1974 did it as well.

The only two teams to ever lose a Super Bowl and come back to win the game the following year were the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who lost the previous year's game to the Dallas Cowboys, which was the only other team in Super Bowl history to do it. Dallas had lost Super Bowl V the year before. 

Can the 49ers make it six franchises to get back to the Super Bowl a year after a loss? Anything short would be a grave disappointment, especially with the chance at revenge on the Carolina Panthers, one of just four teams to beat San Francisco this regular season.

 

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Bye Teams

Let's not forget about the bye teams, all of which are in favorable position to make it to their respective conference title games despite the circumstances of the Wild Card Weekend that saw three of the four home teams lose. 

Anything short of the Super Bowl for Seattle or Denver will be a disappointment, especially after working so hard to procure home-field advantage.

The New England Patriots—given the tumult surrounding the team this season—should be happy where they are, but it's hard to believe a team led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be happy ending the year with a playoff bye and a loss given their postseason track record together.

And then, there is Carolina, the team with the great defense, the dynamic quarterback and the riverboat gambler for a coach that very few people think will make it to the Super Bowl. The Panthers could beat the 49ers this weekend and nobody would be surprised. After all, they already did it once this season. But this has been a totally different San Francisco team since that loss, and it's hard to believe a team like Carolina—with such limited playoff experience—will beat the battle-tested Niners and then either Seattle or the Saints to get to the Super Bowl.

Can they do it? Sure. But with the great season they've had, the Panthers (and their fans) should be happy with what they've done already. No playoff loss, no matter.

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